An Essentialist Making the Case for Nominalism

In a post entitled “‘Essentialist’ means just what I say it means…,” anti-liberal blogger Zippy Catholic described the terms “Essentialist” and “Nominalist”:

[A]n antiessentialist (or nominalist) will view a word like “liberalism” the way Humpty Dumpty views it. The word refers not to an objective external essence but to whatever internal state of his mind that Humpty chooses it to refer to; nothing more, nothing less, and always subject to Humpty’s will. Nobody else can impute an implication that Humpty does not agree to, because there is no essence to the referent other than just what Humpty wills. If Humpty is a liberal, it is only because Humpty agrees in every particular with what liberal means and implies, and further agrees that he is one. “Liberal”, if it applies legitimately as a label to Humpty, does so only because he chooses for it to apply and chooses all that it entails.

An essentialist understands a word to refer to some real essence that is external to and independent of the person who utters it. A speaker[‘s] … words refer to objective things and have objective implications about which he may be completely ignorant or mistaken. Humpty is a liberal if Humpty is in fact loyal to liberalism, which is an objective thing independent of Humpty.

In another blog post entitled “Definition of liberalism,” Zippy defines liberalism as:

Liberalism is the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and equal rights is a primary legitimate purpose of government.

More recently, in the comment section of a recent blog post on the Orthosphere entitled “Deplorable Gnon“, contributor Thomas F. Bertonneau stated:

Hillary’s gnashing of teeth belongs to her gnosticism, which … schemes to realize just as soon as it can derealize all those who stand in its way just by being. Like the witch-hanging Puritanism of which it is the heir, contemporary liberalism, which, as you say, is socialism, corresponds to a sacrificial cult.

Here I take Mr. Bertonneau to mean “witch-hanging Puritanism” is a form of liberalism. He repeated this point in another post entitled “What is Puritanism.” This struck me as odd given that I have been told on numerous occasions there existed broad agreement as to the definitions of liberalism among the people who contribute and comment both on the Orthosphere and its sister blogs like Zippy Catholic. To my knowledge, no puritan sect (especially not the witch-hanging sort) thought it was important to secure the freedom and equal rights of the people under its control. In fact, I would say it is obvious on its face that the contrary is true.

There are a few things I could draw from this situation. First, I think this only confirms my suspicion that those who contribute and comment within the anti-liberal community are using different definitions for “liberalism” (and probably other terms) and yet they are discussing these terms as if a common understanding was broadly understood. This makes a coherent conversation on the subject difficult in my estimation. Second, I assume based on the posts I have read written by Mr. Bertonneau, that he holds himself to be an essentialist. As an essentialist he would have to believe that a real definition of liberalism exists independent of his own mind. However, his recent writings seem to suggest that he defines liberalism not as Zippy defines it but rather as anything Mr. Bertonneau dislikes about modern Western culture. For example, in his post “What is Puritanism” he conflates Puritanism with Liberalism and asserts:

Many Catholic congregations in North America qualify as Puritanical in that they have liberalized themselves and so assimilated themselves to the Left, which is indeed a heresy of Christianity.  All humanities professors are Puritans – as are all college administrators.  Trumpskyites in North America and adherents of the Fidesz Party in Hungary are not Puritans.  Everything today describing itself as “comedy” is archly Puritanical and extremely unfunny.  It never smiles; it only smirks and scowls and uses four-letter language. Islam is ultra-Puritanical. That California, governed by an octogenarian ex-Jesuit, is the vanguard Puritan republic of the United States, the Salem Colony of its day, is in no way belied by the other fact that it is the home-state of the pornography industry.

This strikes me as a nominalist manner of thinking. In fact, it specifically reminded me of Zippy’s post on Humpty Dumpty cited above.

If one is being honest with himself, it is very difficult to take an absolutely “essentialist” world view. Because, even if one does believe there to be real definitions out in the world and independent of the mind, the mind must first make this decision to believe this truth. As such, an essentialist is really just a nominalist who believes with certainty that real definitions exist. Or perhaps asserting real definitions exist is to simply assert a state of mind. Moreover, because the essentialist believes these real definitions exist he naturally tends to believe that his beliefs are in accord with these real definitions and accordingly anyone who believes differently or expresses uncertainty must be wrong. This is not to say that I believe real definitions do not exist for some things, but as the so called “broad agreement” or lack thereof as to the definitions employed on the  Orthosphere demonstrates, one cannot be sure that his particular definitions comport with the real definitions existing external to his mind.





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One response to “An Essentialist Making the Case for Nominalism

  1. Pingback: Spiral Dynamics | Winston Scrooge

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